World’s first Tamil Bible stolen from Thanjavur traced to London museum

The antiquarian Bible is suspected to have been stolen by a group of foreigners who visited the Saraswathi Mahal Library 17 years ago. 

Published: 01st July 2022 04:27 PM  |   Last Updated: 02nd July 2022 01:58 PM   |  A+A-

The antiquarian Bible is suspected to have been stolen by a group of foreigners who visited the Saraswathi Mahal Library 17 years ago. (Photo | Express)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: The world’s first-ever Tamil Bible printed around 300 years ago has been traced to a museum in London. The state Idol Wing is in the process of bringing the Bible back to restore the stolen manuscript back. The Bible was stolen in 2005 from Thanjavur.

The antiquarian Bible is suspected to have been stolen by a group of foreigners who visited the Saraswathi Mahal Library 17 years ago. 

The Bible was printed by the first Protestant missionary to India, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg between 1715-1718 after he set up a printing press in the Thanjavur district. The manuscript was gifted to Tulaji Rajah Serfoji, the then ruler of the Thanjavur Bhonsle dynasty. 

On October 10, 2005, the Deputy Administrator of the Serfoji Palace in Thanjavur district, filed a complaint with the Thanjavur West Police station stating the theft of the antique Bible. Then the police registered only a CSR and closed the case. However, in October 17, 2017, E Rajendran, the office bearer of the Saraswathi Mahal Library lodged a complaint to the Idol Wing CID about the disappearance of the antiquarian Bible. A case was registered under section 380 of IPC (theft in dwelling house) and investigation was initiated. 

Since there was no headway in the investigation, a special review was sought from former police officers. Based on new directions by Director General of Police, Idol Wing, K Jayanth Murali and other senior police officers, a special team was formed under Inspector of Police, Indira to trace the missing Bible two years ago. 

“Quick examination of the visitor’s register at the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur revealed that the place hosted few foreigners on October 7, 2005, days before the manuscript went missing. After further enquiries we found that visitors had come to India to attend a function to commemorate Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the Danish missionary who printed the Tamil Bible,” said Jayanth Murali. 

The Idol Wing launched a search of the websites of various museums in the world, as also Collector's websites and organisations connected with Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg.

Police sources said that after several days of browsing multiple websites of various museums around the world and specifically European countries, the Idol Wing stumbled on the collection of George III which included thousands of printed books, manuscripts and pamphlets, most of which are rare. Hidden amongst the thousands of books, the officers discovered the stolen Bible, the first translated antiquarian Bible in Tamil that was printed in a printing press at Tharangambadi in the 18th century with the signature of Rajah Serfogi of Tanjore himself. The antiquarian Bible that was available on the website of the Kings collection tallied with the picture of the stolen Bible.


Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the missionary to South India, was born in Saxony in 1682. He studied at the University of Balle, the then centre for the Pietistic movement in the Lutheran Church. He responded to an appeal from the King of Denmark for missionaries. In September 1706, he and Heinrich Plueshau arrived in Tranquebar (anglicised form of Tharangambadi in the Tamil), a tiny Danish colony on the east coast, close to Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of India, as the first Protestant missionaries in the country.

He soon set up a printing press and published studies of the Tamil language and Indian religion and culture. His translation of the New Testament into Tamil in 1715 and the church building he and his associates constructed in 1718 are still in use today. He died on 23 February 1719 at age 37, He left a Tamil translation of the New Testament and Old Testament (from Genesis through Ruth), many brief writings in Tamil, two church buildings, the seminary, and 250 baptised Christians. 

Another missionary named Schwartz who followed Bartholomaeus, became a close friend and advisor of Tulaji Rajah Serfoji, the then ruler. In commemoration of their friendship, Schwartz is suspected to have handed over the first copy of the new testament, which Ziegenbalg printed, to Tulaji Rajah Serfogi. Post-independence, after the takeover by the government of Tamilnadu, the antiquarian book became an exhibit in the Saraswati Mahal Museum for public viewing.

Tamil Nadu Idol Wing, Director General of Police, Jayanth Murali, said, "We have initiated steps to restore the Bible to the library. The copy of the Bible given by a Danish missionary to the then Tanjore King Serfoji is a rare manuscript of Maharaja. Its value gets further enhanced by the fact that the cover of this book bears the signature of the then King of Tanjore Serfoji," 

The Idol wing is in process to retrieve the Bible and restore it to the Saraswathi Mahal library under the UNESCO treaty at the earliest. 

India Matters


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  • Adolf

    the British
    10 months ago reply
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